The 2014 Honorees

By Katrine Ames

A five-time Tony Award winner, she is a singer of directness, honesty, and exceptionally nuanced emotion. Her soprano is incandescent, equally persuasive as silk or gravel, belt or whisper—from opera to blues, pop to gospel. In the words of Barbara Cook, she is “the whole package.”

How many musicians, especially one with the knife-edge focus of Audra McDonald, owe the birth of their careers to Ritalin—or rather, the withholding of it? There may be only one, but what a one. McDonald was a hyperactive little girl, but her parents opposed the idea of calming down their daughter through chemistry. Instead, they encouraged her to join a theater program and at nine, their wild child made her debut in her hometown, Fresno, California, as one of numerous princesses in The King and I. That did it. Now, 34 years later, McDonald is one of the most thrilling performers in musical theater and the owner of five Tony Awards, the first of which she won at only 23 for her performance as Carrie Pipperidge in Nicholas Hytner’s legendary production of Carousel at Lincoln Center.

McDonald is what Barbara Cook (who was Musical America’s 2007 Vocalist of the Year) calls “the whole package.” She is fearless, vocally and physically. Her immediately recognizable soprano is rich, flexible, and incandescent, with a huge dynamic range, equally persuasive as silk or gravel, belt or whisper. It’s also genre-bending, since she can sing across the spectrum, from opera to blues, pop to gospel.

There is something important to note about her quintet of Tonys, however. McDonald won two of the awards not for her work in musicals, but in straight plays: as Sharon Graham, the student who enraged Maria Callas by showing up in a ball gown in Terrence McNally’s Master Class (in which she sang the fiendish “Vieni d’affretta,” the letter scene from Verdi’s Macbeth, eight times a week) and as Ruth Younger, working to hold her family together in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun.

In fact, McDonald relishes acting without the support of music and she approaches every role, musical or non-, even every song, precisely the same way. It’s all about character, she says, and something she can connect to: “Who is this person? What does she want? What truth am I trying to convey?” This is something that she wants to pass along to young artists, so when she gives master classes, she concentrates on character.“I have a good truth meter,” she says. “I know when someone’s playing tricks. I’m trying to get them to their core.”

In 2007, McDonald assumed the character of Dr. Naomi Bennett in the Los Angeles-based television series Private Practice; she stayed for four years. To many of her admirers, this was apostasy, borderline heresy. At least when she did a play, audiences could count on her singing at the next bend in the road. But with that TV commitment, she was depriving them of her singular voice. Their protest was understandable: Couldn’t one of many fine actresses who lack McDonald’s musical DNA have played Doctor Bennett?

The answer, of course, is of course. McDonald, however, has her own, equally understandable argument for doing what she did. “People said, ‘You’re leaving the theater,’ but I wasn’t. I needed to make money. I had a child to support, I was getting a divorce, and I wanted to learn about the medium. I was afraid of the camera, how to tell the truth with the camera in my face, how to drop into a story. For me, it was a learning experience.” It’s hard to fault her for that, and she is not the first artist to be vilified for an apparent abandonment of something in which she is close to peerless: Leonard Bernstein, for one, put up with that almost throughout his career.

Everyone can cheer up: McDonald is back. Fresh from Private Practice, she gave a gripping performance as Bess (for which she won Tony No. 5) in a new production of Porgy and Bess that opened in 2011 at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and ran on Broadway for nine months last year. Last spring, she released her first new album in seven years, with the apposite title Go Back Home (Nonesuch), and this autumn she is on a cross-country concert tour. She has always been a singer of directness, honesty, and exceptionally nuanced emotion. What both her Gershwin appearance and the album—with songs from Sondheim, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Kander and Ebb, as well as others by those who are more or less her contemporaries, among them Adam Guettel, Marcy Heisler
and Zina Goldrich, and Adam Gwon—evince is that she has become a richer artist, digging even deeper than she has in the past while also displaying a fine comic touch.

McDonald calls Go Back Home her most personal recording to date. She has told interviewers that she hadn’t made a solo album in seven years because she felt that she had nothing to say, which is painful to hear from an artist of her caliber. With Go Back Home, however, she has made a red-hot crucible of everything she went through since 2006: the end of her first marriage; the death of her father in a plane crash; four years of commuting from Los Angeles to New York every weekend to be with her daughter, a new marriage to actor Will Swenson. “Life happens,” she says. “You can learn from it and filter it through your art, or you can be an artist in spite of life happening to you. My quest is to be an artist who will continue to absorb. Part of the truth is what you have lived. And if I really am a richer artist, it is because of all that. Also, parenthood. If you have someone who shakes you to your very core, as my child does, you are in touch with your soul.”

Someone with a voice as sumptuous as hers could probably get away with skimping a little on text, but for someone consumed with character, that’s an impossibility. Michael John LaChiusa, who first heard McDonald in her student days and who is represented by two songs on her new recording, says, “She has an innate understanding of language, what a lyric is, how to express it. I sometimes forget when Audra is singing that she isn’t talking. She’s parsing the text, trying to understand and absorb it. It sounds like she’s creating a song on the spot, whether it’s new or something by Arlen.”

Creating something on the spot was precisely what McDonald did at 17, when she auditioned for Juilliard. Theater was her true north, but, she says, “I knew that I had to audition as a singer because that’s the talent I’m most comfortable with.” She chose Susannah’s lovely “Deh vieni, non tardar” from Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, but when she forgot the music at the end of the aria, she just made something up. Whatever she did clearly made an impression, because she got in. She spent the next few years studying but stewing. “I tripped and fell into the classical thing,” she says. Railing at a lot of the training, “I looked around and I kept thinking, ‘I’m off my path.’ ”

She came to realize that without that classical training she never would have had the career she has. “I’m grateful that someone heard me at 10 and said, ‘That girl has a voice, you need to get her to a teacher,’ and my mother did,” McDonald says. She arrived at Juilliard with what she calls a fairly solid technique, but Juilliard gave her a more solid one and “helped me to find color and stamina, and the operatic parts of my voice. I have a much better understanding of who my voice is. It’s an amalgam of all the musical styles I had filtered through my culture. All of that is linked.”

Her training also made it possible for her to sing opera, but she has seldom chosen to. She performed a double bill of one-woman works—LaChiusa’s Send (who are you? I love you) and Poulenc’s La voix humaine—at the Houston Grand Opera in 2006. The following year, she took the role of Jenny in the Brecht-Weill work Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny at the Los Angeles Opera. “It’s not that I don’t appreciate opera or that I don’t listen to it,” she says. “I love it and I love to go to it, but it’s not where my heart lies.”

McDonald acknowledges that she arrived on the scene at exactly the right moment. “I think about it all the time,” she says. The moment was precisely right for a voice such as hers, when the lines between opera and musical theater were getting increasingly blurry and a new crop of songwriters was rising. “Audra has a kind of classical operatic approach to popular song that so often doesn’t work,” Barbara Cook says, “but with her it does.” (It’s something of a jolt to listen to the 1994 cast album of Carousel and realize that she sounded more operatic as a young artist then than she does now.)

In addition, had she been born in an earlier era, “Absolutely my color would have been more of an issue. We’re not in a post-racial society, but now with casting the questions are, ‘Are you right for the role, do you have the emotional equipment?’ ” An earlier time would have had her performing without miking, too, but miking is all but standard on Broadway now. “I come from a world where you do eight shows a week, and I think that miking is necessary sometimes. Often you have sound directors trying for a sonic world, and sometimes they’ll bring levels down and rob the audience of a crescendo. I see the technical standpoint.”

LaChiusa was actually present at the creation of McDonald the professional, and he knew it immediately. He heard her audition for Carousel and, before that, at an audition for his musical Hello Again. (She was still a Juilliard student, and a little too young for the part, he says.) “It was a mind-blowing experience, a revelation. I said, ‘There is a God!’ ” LaChiusa was so knocked out, in fact, that he said, “I must write a show for her.” (A five-time Tony nominee, he has written three so far: the musical Marie Christine, about a modern-day Medea, for which both he and McDonald received Tony nominations in 2000; the opera Send, and an as-yet-unperformed work which is based on the opera Carmen but set in Cuba around the time that Castro came to power. “It’s ready whenever Audra is ready,” LaChiusa says.)

She is in the enviable position of being able to sing anything she wants and work with any songwriter she chooses, but from the start she often picked from the new crop. When Nonesuch approached her about doing her first album, she says, the plan was to do a disc of Harold Arlen. “But nothing sounded right, and I thought, ‘How about all the things I’ve been singing?’ ” Way Back to Paradise (1998) contained no standards, just songs by composers with whom she had been working, including Adam Guettel and Ricky Lee Gordon. “It was a courageous thing to do,” LaChiusa says. “A new generation of writers needed a person to champion our work, and she did it.” Writing something for a specific singer is like tailoring a suit, he says. “You know that the performer will have to do this many times. You want to know that when they put on the suit, they’ll want to put it on. Audra is very patient. She’ll say, ‘I need the sleeve a little shorter.’ She’s extremely supportive, and ‘challenge me’ is always the point. ‘Go ahead, challenge me.’ But it’s always about the character, it has to come from the character, it has to have a reason. Everything for Audra has to have a reason.”

If it’s reason she’s after, she has to look no further than Stephen Sondheim, whose work she has long embraced. (The second cut on Go Back Home is his “The Glamorous Life,” from A Little Night Music, and is an archly funny nod to her bicoastal commute while she appeared in Private Practice.) He has not composed anything for her, but when she sings something of his, she says, “I’ll ask, ‘What were you thinking when you wrote this? What was the genesis of this idea?’ With Steve you just start picking his brain. He’ll give you notes within an inch of your life, and he has been dead on with me.”

When McDonald played the skeptical nurse Fay Apple in Anyone Can Whistle at Chicago’s Ravinia Festival in 2005, Sondheim worked very briefly with her, but remembers that “she was unimprovable, so I had virtually nothing to say. She has an extraordinary voice, and the voice comes along with really high-rate acting.” What he didn’t know, he says, “is that she is so funny. Fay has a long monologue, and Audra was funny, angry funny. That was the big surprise for me.”

One of the most remarkable things about McDonald as a performer is that she holds nothing back yet appears to have plenty left over. She has fiery intensity, even in quiet, lyrical moments. She recently signed on as the host of Live From Lincoln Center on PBS, and last May introduced herself in Audra McDonald in Concert: Go Back Home (though many of the songs are not from the recording of the same name). It’s available on line for anyone to witness that intensity blazing, even comic intensity. McDonald sometimes finds it difficult, emotionally, to get through a song, including two that are on both the TV concert and the recording. One, from Gwon’s 2009 musical Ordinary Days, is “I’ll Be Here,” a deeply touching piece about a woman moving on after the death of her husband. The other is “Make Someone Happy,” from Jule Styne/Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s 1960 show Do Re Mi. When LaChiusa listened to the album, he says, “I felt as if I’d never heard ‘Make Someone Happy’ before, and I’ve heard it thousands of times.” McDonald turns it into a searing, soaring anthem, intimate yet all-inclusive.

When she talked about it one hot afternoon last summer, sitting at a table in a conference room, she did not touch on the music, just the lyrics. “Comden and Green figured it out. ‘Here’s what happened. We’ve been there. We know. Make just one someone happy.’ ” By then she was leaning into the table, and slapping her palm on top of it. “Here’s the biggest secret: You will be happy if you make that person happy. I know it’s true at the end.” She sat back and sighed, eyes flashing, looking ferociously happy.•

Katrine Ames is a writer and editor based in New York City and program editor for Spring For Music, an annual orchestral festival at Carnegie Hall. Formerly, she was a senior editor at Newsweek, features director at House & Garden, and a regular commentator on NPR’s Performance Today. She has written for numerous publications, including the New York Times, Opera News, BBC Music Magazine, The Magazine Antiques, and Playbill, and wrote the PBS program A Musical Odyssey in St. Petersburg.




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